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English government to submit legislation to allow human cloning for research

SHARE English government to submit legislation to allow human cloning for research

LONDON (AP) — The government said Wednesday that it would introduce legislation to amend a ban on human cloning to allow scientific research on embryo cells, raising the possibility Britain could be the first country to specifically authorize cloning from humans.

The move, which does not endorse creating cloned babies, came in response to a report published Wednesday by a government-commissioned panel led by the country's chief medical officer.

"We're talking about research at this stage, not treatment," Dr. Liam Donaldson, the medical officer, cautioned. "There is major, major medical potential, but we need medical research to see whether this potential can be realized."

While many countries are working on laws to ban human cloning, several others are considering the prospect of allowing its limited use for research into the treatment of disease. Ethical concerns have tempered the pace in many countries.

Britain allows scientists to conduct research on embryos up to 14 days old for fertility, congenital and other disorders, but does not permit them to be used for the study of diseases acquired in adulthood. The cloning of humans either to create babies or embryos for research was banned in 1990.

The report recommended the 14-day law remain and that legislation be introduced to ban hybrid animal-human embryos and to reaffirm the nation's ban on creating cloned babies.

The reason for the proposed change is the potential of what are known as embryonic "stem cells," the parent cells of the human body that go on to form most types of cells and tissues.

An embryo is essentially a ball of stem cells that evolves into a fetus when the stem cells start specializing to create a nervous system, spine and other features — at about 14 days. Scientists hope that by extracting the stem cells from the embryo before they start to specialize, their growth can be directed in a lab to become any desired cell or tissue type for transplant.

The hope is that one day it will be possible to grow neurons to replace nerve cells in a brain killed by Parkinson's disease, skin to repair burns, and pancreatic cells to produce insulin for diabetics.

Scientists would create a clone of a sick patient by removing the nucleus of a donor egg and replacing it with that of a cell from the patient. The egg would be induced to divide and start growing into an embryo.

The cloned cells would be genetically identical to the patient's and therefore theoretically overcome problems of transplant rejection, which happens because the immune system fights foreign tissue.

Experts say the technique could prevent or cure scores of diseases and would touch nearly every field of medicine.

The government said it recognized that the creation of embryos by cloning will be unacceptable to some people.

"However, we have assessed carefully the scientific and ethical case presented in the report and conclude that such research should be allowed, but only under the very stringent safeguards set by the 1990 Act," the government said.

Since human stem cells were isolated in a lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the first time in 1998, advances in the field have come rapidly.

In June, scientists reported converting bone marrow cells into liver cells, offering hope that cells from adults can be made to regress and redirect themselves to form different types, without the need to create an embryo.

"That is the ultimate goal," Donaldson said. "Scientists believe research in embryonic stem cells is vital to getting that breakthrough."

While the potential benefits of stem cell therapies with cloning are widely recognized, opponents say no advance is worth research on embryos.

Opponents were quick to denounce the report, saying it opens the door to cloned babies and takes no account of the latest advances, which suggest adult cells might be able to be reprogrammed to become other types of cells.

The group Movement Against the Cloning of Humans said the newest advances — which emerged after the report was completed in May — make the recommendations "almost useless." The group called for a new investigation before legislation is submitted to Parliament.

Donaldson said the potential for adult cells to be redirected is limited.

Lord Winston, a fertility specialist and ardent campaigner for stem cell research, said the evidence the work will be beneficial is so overwhelming that it would be unethical not to pursue it.

"I don't think nature herself regards the embryo as sacrosanct," Winston said. "A fetus is different. Embryos are destroyed in menstrual periods, in miscarriages. An embryo doesn't have rights. An embryo is 20 cells with potential."

"I am pro-life," he said. "This is to protect and fulfill healthy human life."

The vote on the legislation is expected in Parliament this fall. Individual members will be allowed to vote according to their consciences, instead of being made to follow their party's line.

In the United States, President Clinton issued an executive order in March 1997 banning the use of federal funds for human cloning.

Clinton called on privately funded scientists to halt human cloning research voluntarily, but did not order a ban on independent research.

Two states — California and Rhode Island — have enacted temporary bans on human cloning, pending further study.

Michigan permanently banned human cloning efforts in June 1998. Several other states are considering bills banning human cloning, and several versions of human cloning bans are pending in Congress.